The plan to move to France had been in the works for months. We bit the bullet and quit our jobs, packed our poky London flat into boxes, and then watched the world come crashing down around us.
When France went into coronavirus “confinement” we decided to move, fast. My French boyfriend and I scrambled out of London hours after Boris Johnson announced the UK would impose its own lockdown to curb the spread of the virus.
Fortunately, very few people had the same foolish idea to flee the UK that morning, and we were able to keep a ridiculously safe distance from our fellow Eurostar passengers.
Still, we knew the risk we were taking. I wasn’t even sure if I, a dual British-South African citizen, would get past border control. (I did, but it took some convincing.)
Before we knew it, we were spat out at Paris Gare Du Nord, and stood squinting in the spring sunshine at the empty streets, bars and restaurants as we waited for a taxi to take us to a friend’s apartment in Boulogne-Billancourt.
France, like many other countries around the world, has entered a stringent lockdown and ordered residents to stay indoors. Any non-essential outing can draw a fine of up to €200 ($210).
It’s easy to forget you’re in a completely new city when you’re confined to an apartment. We had grand plans in a pre-coronavirus world to visit new neighborhoods and get a feel for them before deciding where to settle. Now we need a signed and dated permission form – or “attestation” – to leave the house once a day, and can’t venture farther than one kilometer in any which direction, for no longer than an hour.
Instead of people-watching from the street-side terrace of a quaint cafe, I now catch a glimpse of the outside world each evening at 8 p.m. when my neighbors throw open their doors and windows to clap for the health workers fighting this deadly virus.
It’s the highlight of my day, this show of solidarity. I race onto our little balcony and make eye contact with a little kid standing on his kitchen counter, banging on a pot with a wooden spoon, and a young man cheering in his Batman dressing gown from his balcony. For two whole minutes I feel part of this little pocket of Paris.
When cabin fever began to take its toll, I plotted the one-kilometer radius around our apartment to see how far I could possibly go, painstakingly wrote out my permission slip indicating my reason for going outdoors to exercise, and set off to explore my new ‘hood.
Within one kilometer I found a lovely little path along the Seine where I could peer into the empty “péniches” (houseboats) as I passed. Crossing the river I spied the remnants of a Renault factory, which once covered almost an entire island on the Seine.
While there are a handful of people out, the only real noise I hear is the wail of ambulances in the distance – a sobering reminder of the eerie world we are living in.
I use another permission slip a few days later to go to the boulangerie and corner store. I love grocery shopping when visiting new cities almost more than I do going out for meals because I’m always enchanted by the array of goods on offer. This time I did not dawdle.
There’s suspicion in everyone’s eyes, and awkward shuffling as we try to keep a safe distance. No one is greeting one another in the streets, not a “bise” between friends or a “bonjour” between strangers. It’s cold and strange, but reassuring that people are not taking this lockdown lightly.
It’s looking like we’ll be anchored here for some time and I’ve slowly coming to terms with that. I’m fortunate to be in Paris, and in good health, and have the rest of my life ahead of me to explore this city.
So, for now I’m staying indoors as I much as I can bear, and will continue to live vicariously from my balcony, waiting until 8 p.m. each evening to clap along with Batman and my pot-banging buddy.